Four Ways to Parent Above the Line

In honor of the start of the 2017-2018 school year, yourcoachingbrain is taking a break from coaching to focus on the challenges of parenting. 

teenagers1Maybe it’s the start of another school year or the fact that my son at age 21 is now “officially” an adult, but I have been thinking a lot about parenting lately. Particularly in terms of how we both survived – and even thrived – during his teenage years.

And we didn’t have the easiest time at first, to be honest. At age 13 he went through an international move and his parent’s divorce. One day we’re living on 50 acres overlooking the Pacific ocean in Costa Rica and he’s going to a six-student supervised home school, and the next we’re back in Minnesota and he’s starting eighth grade at a huge junior high and splitting his time between two suburban houses with parents trying to figure out the next chapter of their own lives. Whew.

It wasn’t, shall we say, smooth sailing. My son and I bickered and yelled at each other, we hurt each other’s feelings, and we all too often missed the point of what the other really needed and was asking for. Understandable in a young teen, but I wanted to do better as an adult. And yet, it seemed no one could trigger me quite like he could, and I would lose my cool again and again. I was NOT being the mom I wanted to be and I wasn’t proud of myself. Nor did I find I was enjoying parenting—my son and I had always been incredibly close, and now I couldn’t figure out how to connect. A likable, easy-going kid had turned unpredictable and often volatile. Luckily, about this time, I started studying neuroscience, understanding the brain, and slowly (very slowly, to be honest) seeing a way forward. Here are few things I learned.

1) Don’t Expect Teenagers to Be Rational. Except When They Are. During the teenage and young adult years the highest brain, the prefrontal cortex, is finishing its development. Neural connections are being strengthened, and pathways deemed less important or unnecessary are pruned so that signal strength is stronger in others. (Hormonal surges play a role in this, not only in the development of secondary sex characteristics.)

I think of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) as the executive director of the brain. It doesn’t run everything, but it manages and/or connects to many of our most critical functions. For example, a fully “online” PFC is capable of thinking things through, delaying gratification, remembering things, holding abstractions, and understanding how others think and feel.

For a teenager and young adult with a developing PFC, two things happen. One, some of these things may not yet be really operational, and in my own experience (note, this is anecdotal, I haven’t researched it), it goes in rough categories. On the one hand, some kids tend to get the empathy side of things while the logical planning and thinking things through eludes them longer. This was my own experience. I had difficulty making and following plans or focusing on long-term goals until my mid to late 20s. But I could understand others from a much younger age and was the go-to “counselor” with family and friends even before I hit my teen years. On the other hand, some have real focus and ability to work towards long term goals early on, while connection to feelings (their own and others) may be less developed. This was my son, who decided in eighth grade he would be valedictorian and never wavered from that academic path (and so he was, by the way). But when I asked him at 14 how he felt about moving from Costa Rica, he literally responded, “What are these feelings of which you speak?” However, later in his teen years he began have a deeper understanding of his friends, and now we regularly talk about how he feels.

The second thing that happens is that the process of developing these aspects is erratic. One day they may exhibit great concern for and interest in you, the next be totally and completely self-focused. One day they may rationally and logically plan for their future and the next do a completely stupid and self-destructive thing.

And so one of the things that really helped me as a parent is not to expect my son to be at a different place developmentally than where he was – and to have a great deal of patience with the up and down nature of this. In other words, frame my expectations for who he was being in the moment, with the understanding that it was like a spring weather system in Minnesota, highly changeable. So take an umbrella just in case.

Visit here for more on the prefrontal cortex. 

2) If You Honor Their Brilliance it’s Easier to Share Your Wisdom. The paradoxical thing about our wonderful prefrontal cortices is that at the same time they in the late stages of development, they are also at their best. The neural connections are fresh and there are more of them. Thinking in new ways is natural, because the pathways we establish with repetition and reward are not as well-worn as they are in later years. And so, it is natural that powerfully creative and innovative thinking comes from young people. This deserves to be nurtured, celebrated, expected and rewarded.

I think of the countless deep conversations I had with my son during his high school years. One of the parenting blessings of being trained as a coach was the ability to listen with curiosity and ask questions that helped him understand his own thinking, rather than jumping in with my solution. There were times I could almost literally see the neurons firing and connecting in his brain as he pondered some important issue out loud and I managed to restrain myself and really listen. As I realized more and more his capacity for subtle thinking, I even brought him challenges I was encountering in my neuroscience studies and was astounded by his ability to help me make sense of things. His neurons were often simply quicker and more creative than mine!

At the same time, there is an important role for the wisdom we accumulate through experience. We learn, for example, that much of life isn’t black and white, that emotions tend to rule logic, and that humans are endlessly complex. I found that the more I honored and respected my son’s brilliance, the more open he was to my wisdom. One of the ways I know we got through the teenage years ok is that he now calls me from college to get my perspective and advice. Yay!

Visit here for more on neuroplasticity.

3) Design Your Relationship (When You Are Both Calm). My son and I had a really bad dynamic when he was about 14 and 15. He’d get upset and angry about something and I would react. We’d both go to a state that Dan Goleman (of emotional intelligence fame) dubs an “amygdala hijack.” In other words, both of our PFCs would be very much offline, and all that was available to either of us was fight, flight, or freeze. It didn’t matter at that point whether his upset was rational, we were just two reactions bumping against each other. My son tends to be a fighter by nature, while I am more of a fleer. This sometimes meant him following me around the house trying his best to engage me in an argument while I just wanted to get the heck away. It was, to be honest, awful.

Because of my neuroscience studies, at some point I realized what was actually happening and that I could do nothing productive in the middle of the hijack. So one day when we were at dinner and all was calm and connected, I said, “You know, hon, sometimes it seems like we get into a bad dynamic and I get triggered and reactive. When this happens, my natural response is to want to get away, and I sense this is frustrating for you because you want to talk to me about something. But if you can give me ten minutes or so to calm down, I think I can talk about whatever it is you want to discuss. Could we try this?” (My idea was, of course, that in the time I was on my own calming down, he would be as well, but this framing of the issue as mine would be easier for him to take than me pointing a finger at his reactive state.)

This changed everything for us. Not right away, and not perfectly, because we would still both get triggered, but it gave us a tiny handhold on the mountain to pull ourselves up to a higher state. I’d remind him of our agreement as calmly as I could (not at all calmly in the beginning) and he’d persist a bit, but over time he started to let go more and more quickly. It sometimes helped when I reiterated that I WOULD discuss whatever he was upset about, I just needed a few minutes.

Funny thing is, I actually don’t remember ever actually talking about the issue, because I guess by the time we both got our PFCs back online, there really wasn’t one.

Visit here for more on having an amygdala hijack. 

4) Be the Person You Want Face in the Mirror. Your young person’s brain is wiring in patterns for life, and part of creating this wiring is how the people around them respond. If you can work (and work and work) at remaining reasonably calm in the midst of stress and their age-appropriate irrationality, lack of preparation, self-focus and poor decisions, you help their brains wire for emotional intelligence.

To me, this is a thoughtful balance of speaking up, letting go, and trust. When my son was unkind I did my best to say “it’s not ok to talk to me like that,” or some version thereof, and then let it go, trusting that this was part of his development. Same with other developmental areas, such as thinking ahead. When he got stuck his sophomore year without a summer job, I did my best to first help him find some sort of solution, then worked with him around what would have been a better strategy so that he had more conscious awareness for the next year, let it go and helped him financially that summer, and trusted he would develop this skill. The next year I just checked in a couple of times and when it was clear he had really learned from the past year, told him I was proud of him and let it go.

The speaking up honors my own values and keeps me active in the game. It also serves as a reminder of where we want the neural patterning to develop. The letting go honors where the young person is and what they are capable of right now, and the trust honors that what is happening is a developmental process.

One caveat to all of this parenting is that not all brains are what we would call “neurotypical.” Humans come with a wide array of challenges and gifts, and parenting some kids is honestly harder than others. But they all have things to help us discover in our own development as well. I often would refer to my son as my Zen master, especially during those early high school years. People would think I meant he was very calm and wise. “No,” I’d say, “he’s more like one of those Zen masters who hit you over the head with a 2×4 and see how you respond. He is master of teaching me patience, perspective and love.”

He’s also one of my most favorite human beings in the world, and I am ever grateful for what I’ve learned with, from and because of him.

 

BEabove Leadership offers a two-day communication workshop, the Seven Levels Human Relationships Program, focused on increasing connection and decreasing stress in all relationships. We offer practical tools for all relationships (business, romantic and family and friends) based on neuroscience and the Seven Levels of Effectiveness. Join us in the San Francisco December 9 and 10, 2017, and Ottowa Canada spring 2018. http://www.beaboveleadership.com/seven-levels-human-relationships-program/

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The Intersection of Coaching and Mentoring

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At BEabove Leadership, we’ve been musing about the next evolution of coaching for a couple of years now. We think brain research is pointing to an expanded model of human development that includes more than the classic tools of coaching. I was recently interviewed by Mentoring and Coaching Monthly out of the University of New Mexico Mentoring Institute about our new model and what we think may be the future of coaching.

Ann interview by University of New Mexico Mentoring Institute

10 rules for keeping my brain at the just right amount of stress and stimulation

At BEabove Leadership, we have learned that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) needs just the right amount of stress/stimulation to function optimally. Too little excitement, challenge,balance-2-reloaded-1564717-1279x1918 purpose, etc., and the chemical balance skews, too much stress, pressure, or demands, and the same result. (For more on the mechanics of this phenomenon, see here.)

For me, this understanding had a huge impact on my life, and I have begun to see that managing my PFC needs to be part of a basic human maintenance plan, just like keeping gas and oil in my car and not overheating the engine. This isn’t particularly easy for anyone in today’s world, and I personally struggle with a demanding international travel schedule and the challenges of co-owning an-ever developing business. But I realized one day recently that I have some rules which seem to work for me that I thought might be helpful to share.

I want to note that everyone’s balance curve is different though—what might be stressful to me could be stimulating for you, and vice versa. Ultimately, we each have to figure out our own “just right.”

Ann’s stress decrease rules:

  1. No work on the airplane. I find travel stimulating enough, thank you. It’s a lot of sensory information coming at me, and add to that any uncertainty inherent to a new location, especially a new country, and I am full, if not overloaded. So my personal rule is that I don’t generally work when I travel. I read, cocoon myself in headphones, nap. I have told my inner entrepreneur gremlin that my travel days are work, thank you very much, and I don’t really want to do more that just be. I don’t want to log onto email and make decisions in addition to the ones I have to make to just get to my destination.
  2. I get a day off. The day after training and travel is ALWAYS an off day. This is re-entry for me, and it is a hard line to keep, but I have gotten better and better at it. It’s hard because I travel a lot and have clients and meetings always looking for a place to slot in. But I have begun to see that time has a way of flowing into whatever boundaries I make, and the more I honor myself and my needs, the more I have to give.
  3. Whenever possible, nothing work-related with humans before 9 am or after 4 pm. I’m just not good early in the am, and by 4 pm or so, I’m usually feeling done talking to people. Now that I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which is two hours behind the East Coast, this can also be a challenging line to hold. I do make an exception for one beloved client in China and also to teach an occasional evening teleclass (also to make things work time-wise for our students in China). But again, the more I honor my own needs, the more I am finding that somehow it works out despite the occasional urgency of others.
  4. Stay home in the evening after an intense day. I rarely go out in the evening when I am training. This is a hard-learned lesson, because I have both introverted and extraverted tendencies, and my inner extravert always thinks that doing something in the evening after a training day Will Be Just Fine. But too often, I’ve regretted the extra stimulation, even if it is fun at the time, so I have learned to keep a low profile when I’m in the middle of multiple day training session. There are exceptions to this (nothing is black and white), for example, see rule #10 below.
  5. Stop, Drop and Roll. I give myself permission to recalibrate. If I get home from traveling (or have simply been juggling a lot of balls) and start feeling like wow, there is a lot to do (there is ALWAYS a lot to do when you own your own business) but I can’t really focus effectively, I know my job is to simply stop, drop and roll. Stop the thoughts that I should be productive, Drop my complicated plans and pressures, and Roll with what I want in each moment, even if that is staring numbly at the TV for an evening while I pet the cat. I often ask myself, will the thing I have planned or feel I need to do right now add to the stress in my life? And if so, what is my current capacity for that?
  6. Manage my health. I pay very close attention to food, sleep, and exercise. I bring healthy food with me when I travel and stay in places where I can cook rather than eat out. I also bring my lunch to the training room so that break time is less frantic and I can recalibrate a bit during the day. I also know that getting a good night’s sleep is critical to managing stress and stimulation during the day, so we generally start our trainings at 9:30 a.m, stay as close to the venue as possible, and go to bed early. Exercise is the one that often escapes me, even though I know it is one of the best ways to manage stress, but I try to get myself out in the evening for a bit of a walk, even if I don’t make it to an optimal 10,000 steps for the day.

Ann’s stimulation increase rules:

  1. Do what’s fun, joyful, meaningful and related to my life purpose. I try my best to continually evaluate my joy and resonance when I get a new opportunity, asking, will this be fun? Will it be interesting? Will it grow me? Or is it just a money-making or strategic thing (and sometimes I do take those—I still have a kid in college), but my preference is that sweet intersection where the project is rewarding on all levels, including financially.
  2. Keep it interesting and novel. More and more, I try not to do things that aren’t interesting. This gets harder the more experienced I become in my craft of teaching and speaking, because what once was challenging can become life as usual. Luckily my beloved business partner gets bored easily as well, and is always up for trying out a new program, webinar, or radio show. And the more we don’t know about a subject, the more interested we are in finding out – and then sharing with others.
  3. Challenge myself to do things I am not good at. This is very much related to rule #8, in that these are often new things. For example, I am studying painting and often I kind of suck. I took a class recently where we were painting on large panels and I challenged myself to keep destroying what I had made unless I truly loved it. My piece got worse and worse and worse. By the end, it was simply horrible. My teacher I think felt bad that I didn’t have something to take home that I liked. But I loved the whole mess of it. The frustration, the failure, watching something not work and staying with it, and feeling that my vision far exceeded my capacity. It was a wonderful irritating blast.
  4. Stay connected to the humans I love. Sometimes this means breaking rule #4 (stay home in the evening after training) when I am traveling and there is an opportunity to see an old friend, but this is about balance and managing both stress and resonance. I try to pay close attention to whether going out will be life-giving or draining, and spend time with those people who add to my joy and delight while limiting exposure to those who drain and sap my energy.

So these are my rules, and they seem to work pretty well. I’d love to hear yours in the comments below!

Putting the Wizards to Work

img_1963Growing up in Minnesota, I think I got the proverbial Protestant Work Ethic deeply installed in my neural operating system. There is a part of me that feels distinctly uncomfortable unless I am being Productive And Responsible At All Times. Which can, of course, lead to a feeling of being ground into a fine powder as I try to wrestle my ever-burgeoning to-do list into submission.

So when I learned about the Task Positive Network and the Default Mode Network (covered in more depth in the link) of the brain, it was huge relief. These two networks are “anti-correlated,” that is, they almost always fire one at a time: when Task goes on, Default goes off, and vice versa.

Task activates when we are focused, paying attention to external stimuli, planning and actively figuring out how to do something. I think of this network like my team of engineers. They are hugely helpful at solving logical problems, figuring out the steps to take, planning my day productively, and so on.

But sometimes you need magic instead of engineering. And this is where the Default Mode Network can help. Here is where we have meaning, dreams, vision, insight, introspection and other people’s perspectives.

I think of the Default Mode Network as my team of magicians, living deep in a cave and highly sensitive. Whenever I look too directly at them or try to force them to work, they quit. They can only cast their spells when I am not paying attention. And the best thing is to give them an assignment and go do something else that is not task-focused.

My magicians like it when I go for a walk in the woods, drive in the car (the motion soothes them), take a shower or bath, paint, draw, listen to instrumental music, nap. And when I give them an assignment beforehand, such as “please figure out how to teach the Task and Default networks in an experiential way,” they never disappoint. (In this case, I saw an image of a river with bridges, and developed a process called “Crossing the River” to intentionally activate each network during a coaching appointment.)

We all have both of these networks, but in today’s task-driven world, the power of the Default Mode Network is often underrated. My rule is, whenever I get stuck, can’t figure something out, or there doesn’t seem to be a logical answer, take the job away from the engineers, give it to the magicians, and wait.

The Boxes We Grow Up In: identity, development and the prefrontal cortex

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Ask anyone–I was a hot mess in my teens and early twenties. Disorganized, unfocused, and completely unable to finish anything I started. I dropped out of high school because I found the graduation requirements overwhelming, and by the time I finally graduated college at age 30 (remember the age, it’s important) I had credits from five different institutions on my transcript. And a story about myself that I was flaky, undisciplined, and unreliable.

None of that is actually true about me. It’s just that my brain hadn’t grown up yet.

But I carried that identity with me for years, even as much of I was doing was actually the opposite. I finished college with straight As, was a successful sales manager for a large region, managed the publishing division of a national non-profit, co-founded a non-profit, and more.

And yet I carried a story about myself based on who I was as a teen and young adult, which I was blind to (as we often are to the stories we have about ourselves). It was my dear friend and business partner who finally called me on it a couple of years ago when I said something along the lines of “Well, you know me, I have no discipline,” and after she got finished snorting coffee out her nose and laughing hysterically, she said, “Oh stop it! That is ridiculous. You are the most  disciplined person I know.”

I was completely taken aback, but when I looked more objectively at my life, I saw she had a point. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I went from a haphazard fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants adolescent to a focused, capable, organized adult.

Now you could chalk this up to the general process of learning, and you could assume it was just me developing skills and getting feedback and becoming more effective. And part of that is true. But there is something deeper here: the truth is, I have focus, discipline and organization in my nature. It is actually core to who I am, not just a learned adaptation. So why was I such a mess as a young adult? What happened?

I grew up.

These days we’ve all heard that the brain doesn’t fully develop until approximately the mid-twenties. What we’re referring to is the prefrontal cortex, the last part of  the brain to come fully “on line.” Known as the seat of executive function, this part of the brain is in charge of calibrating risk and reward, problem-solving, prioritizing, thinking ahead, long-term planning, emotional regulation, and the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes. (It’s not that these things aren’t possible before maturity, it’s just that it takes a lot more effort and isn’t very reliable.)

And so, for over 25 years I was telling a very old story, based on an immature version of myself, which I had taken on as true, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Evidence I couldn’t see because the story was blinding me to the truth.

So now, I have a new story, that I am disciplined and focused. And the power of being conscious to this is huge. Probably the main thing is that I am able to trust myself more. When I am about to take something on, instead of hearing an internal voice say “Well I don’t know, you know you don’t tend to follow through very well,” I hear “Good for you, you’ll get that done easily.” The old story was like fighting an uphill battle. The new one is more like riding a wave. And I much prefer riding a wave!

I wonder how many of us have taken on a very old and inaccurate story about ourselves, based on who we were as an adolescent or young adult work-in-progress? And how often do we label kids and teens as “this way” or “that way,” when honestly, we don’t know who they will actually turn out to be once their brains are fully developed?

Take a look and see if what you have been saying about yourself is true, or if it simply was true, before your brain grew up and you became who you actually are.

 

 

Making Affirmations Work

affirmationI recently received an inquiry about affirmations from a dear friend, wondering about a client who was convinced they just didn’t work for him. My friend, an accomplished and seasoned coach, asked me for some hard data that it actually works to tell say positive statements to ourselves. Does it, he asked, really re-wire the brain?

At BEabove Leadership, we’ve thought a lot about this issue. Affirmations are some of the stock in trade of us coaches, and so understanding whether or not they work from a scientific perspective is important. Here’s our thinking on the matter:

1) Affirmations are a way of activating neuroplasticity and the multi-modal nature of neural pathways. That is, many of our neurons fire when they are doing something, watching someone else do something, or imagining doing something (affirmations fall into this category).

2) As you know, we process on both a conscious level and a sub-conscious level. Affirmations are trying to make the subconscious believe the conscious. In other words, consciously working to rewire our subconscious.

3) When we say something to ourselves that we don’t actually believe on a subconscious level, such as, in the famous words of Stuart Smalley of Saturday Night Live fame, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it people like me,” the subconscious says “Nope. Don’t buy it, don’t believe it. I’m not and they don’t. I REJECT this thought.” This is true to the degree that some studies have found people with low self-esteem even feel worse after saying affirmations like this. It is disruptive to their internal belief system that has developed to keep them safe.

4) However, if we say it long enough and consistently enough, we may eventually begin to believe it, causing our subconscious to say “Ok, I get it, you’ve convinced me.” But this is a long slog and many people give up along the way. It can take a long, long time for affirmations to work, particularly with very deep-seated issues and core beliefs.

5) Therefore, using the following process is much more brain-friendly, and, we have found, consequently much more effective. (Note: this process comes from an energy healer named Sandy Radomski of Ask and Receive. Neuroscience analysis of the process is ours.) Say out loud the following statements (and repeat as much as you like):

There is a part of my being that already knows how to (fill in the blank) 

This part of my being is informing the rest of me now

It is doing so with grace and ease

My mind body and spirit are receiving this information

Information transfer now complete

Here is why we think it works so well:

We say: There is a PART of my being that already knows how to (fill in the blank). And our subconscious says, “Ok, I’ll give you that. It might be a very very small part, but ok, maybe there is a part of me that knows how to do this.”

This part of my being is informing the rest of me now. Subconscious says “Ok, good idea.”

It is doing so with grace and ease. Subconscious says “Great, I’m not interested in this being a struggle.”

My mind body and spirit are receiving the information. Subconscious says “Cool, I’m not sure which part of me is going to figure this out, so let’s call on all of it.”

Information transfer now complete. Subconscious says “Oh, cool, the Star Trek part.” (Seriously, I don’t know why this is in there, but it always make me giggle).

This way we reprogram the brain without resistance. You can even feel the ease of this as you say it. I use it in the middle of the night when I can’t get to sleep and can feel myself calming down (and there is some evidence to support that any sort of positive self-affirming statement can help reduce stress). And I have used it with numerous clients over the years, who all report that it has helped them move past things that felt stuck.

For an interesting review by Psychology Today, see this link: Do Self-Affirmations Work? 

Why Am I Taking Your Money?

I am going to out myself here. But first, a little context. I’ve been a coach for 14 years. I teach coaching. I teach advanced coaching. I write about coaching. I analyze the neuroscience of coaching. I can demo any coaching process or skill in front of a writing-a-check-1-1239268-1599x1196room with practically anyone and have it work. Usually masterfully. And I still have the occasional client where, to be honest, no matter what I do, they just need someone to listen to them, and it doesn’t really feel like coaching.

I have turned myself inside out over this. I have berated myself, gotten coaching and advice from my peers and mentors, tried everything short of tap dancing with a trained elephant, and still, it comes back to, they just need someone to listen to them.

And so I do that. I end up mostly just listening. And as I talk with experienced coaches from around the world, I find that many of my colleagues often confess to the same. There are some clients who need, more than anything, a non-judgmental ear and place to verbally process.

Often these are clients who, for whatever reason, have nowhere in their lives where they can say everything they are thinking or feeling without filters. It may be because they are in the public eye, at a high position in a company, or simply because they aren’t surrounded by any curious and open people. Or they are intensely verbal processors who have to speak–a lot–in order to know what they think and how they feel.

For the brain, just the process of speaking to an open ear is highly valuable. In the book Supercoach, Michael Neill gives thelamppost-1375555-1279x1661 example of being coached by a lamp post. Imagine, he advises, that someone heads home from work every evening and stops to talk to a lamp post on his way, unburdening himself from the day’s issues and problems, and speaking out loud possibilities and options for tomorrow. The lamp post doesn’t talk back, give advice, or do anything. It’s just there. And the person, by developing the habit of talking to the lamp post, begins to find his life improving. He feels less burdened and a bit more in touch with what is possible. The process of speaking his ideas out loud even triggers new thoughts and insights.

Now add to that the fact that we as coaches, even at the most basic level, do so much more than the average lamp post. We listen with both our hearts and our minds. attuning to what they are saying (in a sense, feeling it with them), and responding thoughtfully and non-judgmentally. This sort of listening tends to elicit what neuroscientists refer to as a “towards” state in the brain, where it is open and receptive. This is in sharp contrast to an “away” state, where your brain basically says, let’s get the heck out of here. We can easily activate an away state in others by being critical, giving unsolicited advice (especially in a judgmental and/or superior manner), or being actively distracted while another is speaking.

When the brain is in a “towards” state, it is more receptive and creative, learning and remembering much more. Insight can happen, where disparate neural networks find each other and connect, causing “aha” moments. The person is emotionally open and actually sees more of what is going on–literally–because the visual processing centers are activated.

And again, even with those clients who just need to be listened to, the truth of the matter is we are usually actually doing much more. It may not feel like coaching at its best, but we are probably also at least:

  • Asking powerful questions designed to have them reflect more deeply;
  • Helping them focus and organize their thoughts;
  • Underlining and highlighting key things that they are saying so that the client is more aware;
  • Bringing it to a “so what” so that they have a new way of moving forward;

So let’s all give ourselves a bit of a break when this happens, and stop the little voice that says “why am I taking your money?” It happens. Sometimes because the coach needs more skill, and sometimes because maybe, just maybe, this is what the client needs.

Although I do need to add, as I often tell my coaching students, that of course these are not the clients I would want to submit for my ICF credential assessment. It’s not best practice in coaching, it’s not the full potential of what coaching can be and do, it’s not what we are capable of as coaches. But sometimes, it’s what happens, and it’s ok.

Your Brain is Basically a Three-Year-Old (and what to do about it)

During a recent workshop in Atlanta, one of the participants came from out of town with her mom and young son. Grandma and grandson hung out in the hotel during the day, and the little boy delighted us all when he stopped by for mom time on the breaks. At one point I happened to have a battery-operated timer in my hand when he came in the room, and being a well-adjusted, curious-1309170open and extremely curious little guy, he of course wanted it, so I gave it to him to play with. Ah, the buttons and bells! He was enchanted and (you probably saw this coming), not at all interested in giving it back at the end of the break. Having had some experience in the mom arena myself, I knew better than to wrest it away by force. The last thing I wanted to do was make him cry! So I dug around in my purse for something else I didn’t need, which turned out to be a bright orange (clean) handkerchief. He was a bit dubious, but took this in exchange for his toy, tears were thus avoided, and the workshop went on.

I tell this story because it reminds me of something I often say to my clients: in some ways, your brain is basically a three-year-old. (Now just to be clear, I’m not saying that you are a three-year-old. You are a marvelous creature of insight and possibilities. It’s just that your brain, well, your brain can be difficult.) Here are a couple of ways in which our brains exhibit three-year-old behavior, and what you might want to do about it:

1) Telling your brain NO often creates resistance, especially if it is currently doing something where there is a reward. Just like a toddler who is experimenting with the boundaries of her own needs and desires, our brains want what they want when they want it. We’re highly primed and encoded to move towards pleasure and away from pain. Dopamine, one of the happy chemicals in our brain (it also has many other functions), helps motivate us to do what is rewarding. And the sharpness of pain helps to keep us safe. Interestingly, perhaps because social connections have been evolutionarily critical to survival, the pain of social rejection (being severely criticized, having one’s heart broken, feeling like an outsider) are processed in a part of the brain adjacent to the pain centers. Not being part of things can literally hurt (and astonishingly, pain relievers can even help).

What to do about it: As every good parent knows, it is most effective to reward good behavior whenever possible and keep punishments to a minimum. The same is true with your brain. I occasionally have clients ask me to “be really tough on them,” and my response is (usually) that they are probably doing just fine in that arena themselves. I’m not interested in yelling at my clients or making them feel bad (I don’t get paid enough and that sort of work probably requires a completely different wardrobe). Instead, I’m more interested in helping them find something to move toward. It’s less of an internal battle to give the brain a compelling alternative and thereby make a new neural pathway (see my many posts on neuroplasticity, including this one for more) than to constantly try to stop doing what we have done a million times before by now inserting punishment or pain.

And negative commands have a way of strengthening the emotional salience of things. Just like when we tell a toddler not to pull the cat’s tail and they immediately do it, saying “don’t” to ourselves reinforces the idea that “Hey, there is something important and perhaps interesting here!” Again, far better to give the child a fluffy toy so that they ignore the cat in favor of something else. And so, instead of “getting tough,” my strategy tends to be to look for the fun way. You hate exercise but want to get in shape? Well, what do you love to do? What would make it not feel like a burden? What would compel you? Imagine being as kind to yourself as you would to an adorable child, and asking, “sweetheart, what do you want to do?”

2) Your brain makes many decisions emotionally and then tries to defend them rationally after the fact. Ever ask a three-year-old “Why did you do that?” Hah! Unless you are just going for the pure entertainment value, this is a losing proposition. Why? Because they don’t know why they did it. They did it because they wanted to. Because it was there. Because, why not? They’ll usually make up something, but the deeper truth is probably more along the lines of “I was experimenting to see if you really meant what you said about not getting out of the bathtub (cutting my doll’s hair, throwing my peas, etc.),” or “You said not to so I thought something interesting might happen if I did it,” or “I don’t know, I just wanted to,” or “It feels good.”

The only difference here between some of our own decisions and those of a three-year-old is that we learn to make our explanations more plausible and rational. Here’s how I understand this — our brains need to conserve energy. The brain makes up about 2-3% of our body weight, but it uses 20-25% of the calories we consume. And as such an energy consumptive part of our body, it is always looking for ways to conserve. Thinking, analyzing, and making decisions all take a lot more energy than emotionally responding, activating existing belief systems, and operating by assumptions. Psychologists call this type 1 processing: automatic, intuitive processes that are not very strenuous. Type 2 thinking, on the other hand, is is slower and involves processing more data and cues from all around us, and activates more of the highest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

In addition, all the research points to the fact that we are much better at type 2 thinking when we are well-rested and well-fed (See this fascinating study on the leniency of Israeli judges as one example) and not overly stressed. Add physical needs or emotional stress to the works and your brain just doesn’t have enough juice to operate at its highest level. It’s also the case that some of us just never learned how to move to a higher level of analysis. The brain is like a muscle–if certain parts are not exercised, they won’t be strong. And if someone’s background and training did not include practice in analyzing data and examining many factors when making decisions, all that is available is type 1 processing.

And so, whether we are stressed, hungry, tired, or just never really learned how to think in a more complex way, our type 1 thinking takes over, we respond more automatically, and then, when asked why we did something or think that way, our strong interpretive center takes over and makes something up that sounds good in the moment. Whether it’s rational or not. (For more on this, just watch American politicians for a while — many of them are experts.)

What to do about it: I am actually a huge fan of intuitive knowing, trusting one’s gut, etc. The body has wisdom and our internal sense of what fits and what doesn’t definitely deserves to be cultivated. So I’m not talking about dismissing one’s intuition. Rather, this points to strengthening our muscles of type 2 processing so that we can expand our decision-making capacity. We will always be dual processors, running both our emotional response (type 1) and rational analysis (type 2). If all we have accessible is type one processing, the three-year old in us takes over. And it’s also true that if all we have is type 2, we do not link what is most important and resonant to our choices.

One way to develop type 2 thinking is to take a philosophy (especially logic) or science class. The rigors of this kind of analysis will help to develop your capacity to move your thinking to higher areas of the brain. As coaches, we can also push in this arena to help our clients strengthen their brains by helping them analyze decisions logically, and then linking this consciously to the emotional resonance of their more type 1 thinking (and vice versa).

3) The good news–we can grow too! As I watched the adorable little boy in Atlanta, I noticed something else. He was a scientist, and life was his laboratory. For example, he’d give someone a high five, and then watch intently for their reaction. Like all healthy and well-adjusted toddlers, he was deeply engaged in the process of ongoing learning, pretty much at every moment. Checking things out, seeing what happened, and internally making micro-adjustments. We call this development, and we tend to think of it as the realm of children. But our brains continue to wire and rewire all throughout our whole lives, and when we bring consciousness, intent and support to this process, we can even give ourselves as adults some of what might have been missing in our early years as well as continuing to learn new skills and explore expanded ways of being.

This is one of the most important and significant connections between coaching and neuroscience, the fact that we as coaches help our clients create lasting change by supporting their self-directed neuroplasticity. And yes, children’s brains are more of a blank slate, but ours have unlimited potential as well. In that way, being like a three-year-old a great thing!

Coaching, Stress and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (VIDEO)

Here I am explaining and then demoing how to work with stress and the pre-frontal cortex as part of Boom Boom Go‘s great video library of coaching tools. Click HERE to watch (and HERE to read the article this tool is based on).

Note: this coaching tool is just one of many we teach at BEabove Leadership  in our Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program!

PFC Curve JPG